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The Franklin Institute of Philadelphia is telling the terracotta warriors story in another way

by Yu Zhang, President of Yu Culture, consultant for China-related cultural projects

Working in a museum, wherever it may be outside of China, you may dream of hosting an exhibition of terracotta warriors – even if it will only have some eight to ten warriors and horses out of the thousands of two-millennia-old figures discovered in Xi’an. Te Papa Museum in New Zealand will soon be one of the lucky few: this blockbuster exhibition is expected to cost “more than 4 million NZD” while yielding “an economic impact of about 41 million NZD”, and “attract more than 112,000 visitors” between December 2018 and April 2019. In comparison, China’s most famous touring exhibition, The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army, attracted 850,000 visitors to the British Museum in 2007-08, making it the museum’s second-most-visited exhibition after the 1972 Tutankhamen show.

@YZ / Yu Culture


The good news is: this exhibition is no longer exclusive to national museums as a diplomatic gift “offered” by the Chinese government. Several versions or sets are touring the planet with a unique Chinese story told in various ways to approach the local audience. After being shown at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, US between April and September 2017, an exhibition entitled The Terracotta Warriors of the First Emperor opened recently at the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, US. It is a one-of-a-kind terracotta warrior exhibition, shown outside of an archaeology museum. “We try to show the science and the process side, in addition to the wonderful story of terracotta warriors, says Jeanne Maier, Director of Exhibits and Design at the Franklin. Ellie Byrom-Haley, President/CCO of Gecko Group, which was contracted to develop and design the interpretation and exhibition/experience design, added: “The exhibit explores the science behind Chinas ancient terracotta figures in a variety of ways, including engaging interactives, powerful media, and immersive theatrical experiences. Visitors discover how and why the warriors were made and glimpse mysteries yet to be unearthed.


In addition to the core audience of the science centre, interested in interactivity, the exhibition also expects to reach out to audiences interested in artefacts. Meanwhile, the fourth-grade curriculum in Philadelphia focuses on China and also on science and technology, making the exhibition “a perfect match of what they learn at school, according to Maier. This is also why the storyline seduced Haiyun Wu, of the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotions Centre, who coordinated the exhibition with some 20 lenders across China, mostly from the region. “The birth of a great empire must have been supported by advanced technological power. There are so many mysteries around the terracotta warriors, about how they were built, the standardised process, or the pits. We are glad that a science centre is trying to solve these mysteries for future generations.”


After having visited several museums in Shaanxi, China, the exhibition team from the Pacific Science Center and the Franklin were inspired by the pits as well as by ancient China’s engineering and mass production skills, not to mention the objects themselves. This marks the first time the loan is going to a science centre to showcase each warrior on a peddle stone, paired with a story about science and technology. It was not difficult to convince the Chinese partners, despite concerns about the conservation and security conditions for the exhibits: “it was an effort taken on by all parties,” says Maier. The original terracotta warriors are exhibited in a climate-controlled gallery with appropriate security alarms, alongside185 archaeological pieces in climate-controlled showcases.

Photo courtesy of The Franklin Institute


After various back-and-forth meetings with the Chinese lenders and researchers who “shared as much info as they could,” the Franklin was able to show how the colours of the paints on the warriors have faded differently over centuries using life-sized replicas of the warriors. With the exhibition’s augmented reality app, the Franklin and its scientific consultants weigh in on all the weapons that would have been used by the soldiers, allowing visitors to virtually build their own army, beyond the physical experience at the exhibition. The Franklin also developed its own interactive: for example, the archers are paired with the crossbow trigger assembly in the museum collection. Interviewed in writing, Ningbin Hou, Director of the Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site Museum (commonly known as the Terracotta Warriors Museum, one of the Chinese lenders who worked in coordination with the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotions Centre), said that he was deeply impressed by the interpretation and the immersive experience at the Franklin’s exhibition and wished to learn from such interdisciplinary experiences for the in-house exhibitions in the future.


The Franklin-Gecko team is particularly proud of the “iconic experience” replicating the pits: visitors can walk through the pits among full-sized warriors, with 3D projections on the bodies of the warriors showing the amazing effect of the painted colours fading slowly as visitors walk by, a highly immersive experience that Gecko Group designed in partnership with Klip Collective for the media creation and 3D mapping.

Photo courtesy of The Franklin Institute


The lenders and host museums are all satisfied by the results. “The ‘terracotta warriors’ is a very sought-after exhibition. When it travels, we want to highlight the new archaeological discoveries as well as conservation techniques. We are thrilled to see the warriors exhibited outside of archaeology museums, in places such as children’s museums and science centres,” concludes Hou, who, while in Philadelphia, also signed a long-term memorandum of understanding with the Franklin following the successful exhibition collaboration. Wu also applauded the smooth cooperation and attributed the success of the exhibition to mutual trust.


So museums, are you ready to tell your story of the terracotta warriors?

Photo courtesy of The Franklin Institute



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Contact Yu Zhang: yu.zhang[at]yuculture.fr

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